Lumbering Before Pinchot

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When the Europeans first saw the New World, their overwhelming impression was of trees, an endless forest covering a continent. And even in the boundless timberland that was eastern North America, West Virginia’s Land of Canaan was extraordinary, for it contained the finest stand of climax red spruce in the world.

The canoe-shaped Canaan Valley itself, 150 miles west of present-day Washington, D.C., was not big—little more than 14 miles long and 3 miles wide. It was boxed in by three rugged mountain ridges, shrouded in misty fog, and utterly silent. The novelist Rebecca Harding Davis, writing in 1880, called the region’s absolute stillness “strange and oppressive as noonday” and wrote that “human voices were an impertinence in the great and wordless meanings of the woods.”

To the lumbermen who rode in with the railroad half a decade later, the meanings were clear enough. A good stand of hardwood timber in West Virginia yielded fifteen thousand board feet per acre. Exceptional stands would yield as much as twenty thousand. The finest stands of white pine in the great northern forests of Michigan and Minnesota produced forty thousand. From parts of Canaan Valley the lumberjacks would haul eighty to a hundred thousand board feet per acre of red spruce.

For four hectic decades the boom times the lumbermen thrust upon this stillness were to rival the gold and silver rushes of the West in brawling intensity and in return on investment. And when it ended, Canaan Valley and its surroundings would be utterly destroyed.

It would have been an outcome inconceivable to the awed members of the survey party that discovered the valley. On Monday, October 13, 1746, a group that included the thirty-eight-year-old Col. Peter Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s father, climbed to the top of Cabin Mountain and looked down on Canaan’s forest for the first time. The next day the party plunged into the valley itself.

It took a bit more than a generation to reduce the Canaan Valley to stumps. After the clearing, fires would smolder for months.

A surveyor named Thomas Lewis wished he had never come. He wrote in his journal that “from the … time We Entred the Swamp I Did not See aplain Big Enough for aman to Lye on nor a horse to Stand.”

The party encountered a vast clutching understory of eight- to ten-foot-high “loral” (rhododendron) that twisted across the forest floor, “all most as Obstinate as if Composed of Iron. Our horses and often our Selves fell into Clefts & Cavitys without seeing the danger Before we felt the Effects of it.”

On leaving, Lewis made a last entry: “Never was any poor Creaturs in Such a Condition as we were in nor Ever was a Criminal more glad by having made his Escape out of prison as we were to Get Rid of those Accursed Lorals.”

Many early settlers felt the same way. A century later one wrote that the valley was “as perfect a wilderness as our continent contained … a howling wilderness of some twenty or thirty miles’ compass, begirt on all sides by civilization, yet unexplored.”

The valley was a relic of the last glacial age. When the Wisconsin ice sheet had crept down from the North to within a hundred or so miles twenty thousand years before, Canaan became a frost pocket, high and cold—perfect for red spruce.

Nobody knows how the valley got its name, but in time, under the battering of West Virginia usage, the biblical “Cane-un,” with its accent on the first syllable, became “Kah-nane,” with the accent hard on the last syllable.

As late as the mid-1880s, on the eve of its destruction, the forest was virtually as Lewis had seen and hated it.

Henry Gassaway Davis changed that. In 1866 Davis, a railroad man and politician, convinced the West Virginia legislature to incorporate his Potomac and Piedmont Coal and Railroad Company with powers, rights, and franchises to do almost everything. By 1881 Davis, then a U.S. senator, had involved so many of his colleagues in his enterprises that the line working its way toward Canaan Valley came to be known as the “senatorial railroad.” On November 1, 1884, the last spike was pounded into the stretch of the senatorial railroad that ran into the brandnew town of Davis on the rim of Canaan Valley. Not long afterward a Pennsylvania lumberman named Jacob Leathers Rumbarger built a band-saw mill on the Blackwater River between Second and Third Street. The first of some thirty-one miles of logging railroads began to push their twisting way into the once impenetrable valley. From a population of two in 1884, Davis swelled to four thousand—a town that in time came to include seven churches, an equal number of saloons, a tannery, two banks, a second major sawmill, two butcher shops, two undertakers, five doctors, two dentists, five restaurants, and four hotels.

In the mid-nineties, a twelve-hundred-seat opera house went up on the corner of Henry Avenue and Second, within easy hearing of the sawmill’s exhaust engines. Under the illumination of that pale and flickering novelty, the electric light, audiences watched Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ten Nights in a Bar-Room .